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Interview: Rising MC Canon and RMG CEO Doc Watson

Hailing from Chicago but now calling Atlanta home, Aaron “Canon” McCain is a prominent mover in the Christian hip hop world. Finding religion as a teenager, Canon headed south for college, where he pursued expressing his faith through music with the encouragement from new friend Derek Minor & others in the scene, dropping his first mixtape in 2009. Canon would go on to sign with Reflection Music Group and tour the world with renowned Christian MC Lecrae.

Flash forward to 2014 – Canon is making waves and reaching the Billboard charts with his newest album, Loose Canon, Vol. 2 and enjoying opportunities like freestyling on ESPN’s 1st Take before a big Monday Night Football game!

Doc Watson, CEO of Reflection Music Group, has chosen TuneCore to distribute singles and albums for his growing label over the years. He’s a great example of a label head who develops strong relationships with his artists and creates a ‘family-style’ atmosphere. Canon and Doc were kind enough to discuss the album, Canon’s background, the Christian hip hop scene and more in an interview below…

Tell us about how your upbringing in Chicago influences your lyrics and style:

Canon: My upbringing in Chicago has a big impact on my style. I grew up in the church and we were surrounded by that specific culture. I played in the praise band and sang in the choir. Being involved in those areas really influenced my music. I remember the cadence changes and the fast and harmonious vocals we would deliver. That was a big deal to me. I remember my brother playing the drums and he would ride the hi-hat and I remember thinking to myself that the speed of which his drumstick rang on that hat is how fast I wanted my rap to sound. The midwest and southern rappers that were out at that time also influenced me. I loved the beats; the southern drawl that they had. It was dope.

How early did you know you wanted to rap? And when was it that you made the decision to merge your faith and your love of hip-hop?

C: I’ve always had a passion for hip hop and rap music in general but I realized when I was around 11 years old that this was something that I wanted to do. However when I was 14 is when I became a believer and stuff got real for me. My faith became real and I knew then that I wanted to do this for the Lord.

You seem to have surrounded yourself with great people. Tell us about your relationships with artists like Lecrae, Derek Minor, Doc Watson, and Reflection Music Group.

C: I am extremely grateful that God has put these dynamic brothers in my life. They have all had a powerful impact on my life and I am extremely thankful to have them as my brothers. Lecrae has imparted so much wisdom on me. As someone who is a veteran I take his influence to heart. I would say the biggest thing that I have learned from him is how to lead and live responsibly as a man of God in this industry.  Derek has challenged me so much especially in the area of being a great artist and a great leader amongst other artists. Doc has kind of taken what both Lecrae and Derek have taught me and has helped me navigate through those areas. He has also helped me maximize my talents, be a responsible godly leader, and a great artist/businessman. RMG as a whole has taught me how to steward my platform well.

Doc, what did you first see in Canon when you two first met?

Doc Watson: Canon was about 19 when I first met him. He was always working and learning his craft. At RMG we are a family, so he fit that perfectly. Since the beginning he has been like a brother and has always pushed himself to get better in production, recording, and fashion.

How would you describe the independent Christian/Gospel hip hop scene as a whole? 

C: In the independent scene, everybody is building up their own resources to change the world. It’s done in a sense where they may co-labor with other individuals or a group. Nobody is signed to any major labels. Reach [Records] is probably the only major label that we may have in the movement. Everybody is primarily independent because the genre itself is independent. It’s not held together by major mainstream sources.
DW: I think it has become more creative and thoughtful of its message. I feel like some in the genre are able to connect with the mainstream a lot better than before. The genre has grown and the music has been improving constantly.

Canon, what does being independent mean to you?

C: It means being able to create a movement and rally resources and people to believe in the vision of your specific message in the movement. It also means to create your own resources as well as live off of your own resources and have people believe in the movement that you have created.

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As an independent label manager, how has TuneCore made your life/business easier?

DW: TuneCore is so great from an independent level. It gives us more access to stores, more control of our music, and also more options when it comes to marketing. Obviously it’s great to keep all of our royalties, but the customer service and transparency of TuneCore is what makes it really great. I have never had a problem getting paid, we see trending reports to help with budgeting and forecasting. TuneCore also helps us discover our markets, (which are strongest and which are emerging), per our artist.

What kinds of stories are you sharing on “Loose Canon Vol. 2”?

C: There are so many stories being shared in LCV2. It is a shotgun version of a project. It doesn’t just focus on one theme; I tackle a lot of different issues with hopes to bring a lot of them to light. One of them is the song “Point Of View”: I tell the story of growing up in the hood and people getting at me because I was a silly kid who liked to play and have fun and I didn’t do well in school. I was the one who everybody knew and wanted to be around but struggled with being irresponsible. Back in the day people would look at me and think things like, “There aint no hope for that boy.” In this track I wanted to share that I am someone who’s intelligent and knows a lot about God and how to be a good man. I am more than meets the eye. I also want to show people that I am doing what God has called me to do.

In “Common Sense”, I share the idea that people think that to pursue the American dream is common sense. My challenge is that if we pursued getting all the college degrees and career goals, loading up our 401k’s and have the wife and 2.5 kids with the house and picket fence, what would happen if God calls us to live a life style that is contrary to the American dream? What if He calls us to be cross-cultural missionaries? What if common sense isn’t so common anymore? My goal is not to bash the American dream, but to get people to think that common sense may not be what everyone thinks that it is.

LCV2 debuted at #8 on the Billboard Hip Hop Chart, and #2 on the Gospel Chart! How do you plan on using that momentum to power through the next year?

C: My goals are to use this amazing opportunity that God has given me to put out more great music, make more appearances on tracks, videos, tours etc. The thing that we need to remember is that God opens up these opportunities. I want to submit to what he has for me.

What does the success of LCV2 mean for you and your label?

DW: It’s big for a lot of reasons. Sure the financial side is obvious, but also the momentum is great. Canon has 3 projects that are available, and has released them each one year apart. Each one has sold better than the last, which is great news. Also, we have had a great year as a label with other releases. So this keeps the momentum moving and the growth continuing.

Independent hip hop artists of all styles face struggles. What advice do you have for those looking to break through and take their careers to the next level?

C: I want them to know that it takes a level of commitment and dedication that you haven’t given anywhere else. If you are looking at this as a hobby, then I want to encourage you to think about a different career. This is something that you have to be 100% dedicated to at all times. It takes a lot of time and energy. You need to commit and give everything that you have to it. If you are committed, then stay focused and keep at it.

As someone who is regularly on the lookout for talent, what kind of advice can you offer to aspiring artists?

DW: The first thing, and most importantly, is build your brand. You do this by consistently putting out music and art. Stay creative and get a group of really dope creatives around you to help. Doing things on your own is normal for many artists, but eventually you have to open up and let others into your process. Everything else comes along…but with TuneCore out there, it makes it easy to sell your music. Make sure to stay away from free albums, unless you do it by also selling your  music. Like I said before, TuneCore is great for discovery.